Mr Blackwell highlighted the global impact of the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute’s (AFBI) work, especially in the aquaculture industry and international trade in pig products.
He said: “Continued investment in AFBI – and I would highlight in particular its Veterinary Sciences Division – is critical in order to maintain sufficient levels of disease surveillance and investigation. Such work guarantees preparedness for an outbreak of epizootic/transboundary disease – just as AFBI was able to provide in relation to influenza, Bluetongue and Schmallenberg in recent years.”
DARD Minister Michelle O’Neill responded as a guest speaker to Mr Blackwell’s speech. Also present was Chief Veterinary Officer Robert Huey.
Guests at the dinner, hosted by John McCallister MLA, included parliamentarians, key representatives of animal health and welfare organisations and the agri-food industry, media, and senior members of the veterinary profession.
Mr Blackwell also highlighted the fantastic liaison work carried out by Lindsey Read and Jim Drayne along with David Graham of the BVD Implementation Group in educating both the farming and veterinary professions on bovine viral diarrhoea.
Urging further action, Mr Blackwell said: “I know our colleagues in Northern Ireland are hopeful that this industry-led Animal and Health Welfare Northern Ireland (AHWNI) voluntary scheme will become mandatory in early 2015. Both the veterinary profession and industry are very anxious for a definite statement."
Congratulating Northern Ireland on the prospect of becoming officially brucellosis free (OBF) in 2015, Mr Blackwell said: “Once OBF status is obtained, then that is the time to consider further phased relaxation of pre-movement testing controls, moving towards possible abolition, whilst continuing to employ risk-based surveillance.”
Commenting on Minister O’Neill’s recently published response to the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s report ‘Going for Growth, Investing in Success’, Mr Blackwell said: “Minister, we were pleased to read in your recently published response… that you will give priority support to the sector despite the challenging fiscal environment.
“As BVA said on the report’s publication in 2013, its recommendations are to be applauded as positive steps in improving animal health, welfare and biosecurity. But we also urged more focus on the role of the vets in ensuring a robust and trusted agri-food sector. I repeat that plea to you now.”
Mr Blackwell also spoke about BVA’s campaign to end non-stun slaughter in the UK: “While there is currently no non-stun slaughter in Northern Ireland this does not guarantee that non-stun products from the UK aren’t sold on supermarket shelves or in food outlets.
“This year we launched a UK-wide online petition to end non-stun slaughter. 100,000 signatures will see the issue considered for debate in the House of Commons. We have over 77,000 signatures, which is a significant number, but we still have some way to go to reach our target.
"So I implore each of you to promote the petition to your friends, family and colleagues. To share it on social media and to carry on informing people about why it is so important to stun animals before slaughter.”
Emphasising the role vets play in responsible pet ownership, Mr Blackwell noted that Northern Ireland’s foresight in the early introduction of mirochipping for dogs had seen numbers falling from one stray for every 184 people in 2011 to one stray for every 311 people in 2014 according to figures from the Dogs Trust.
Mr Blackwell went on to comment on veterinary education in Northern Ireland: “As we know, the University of Ulster is exploring the possibilities of delivering veterinary science courses and there may be sound economic reasons to develop veterinary education in Northern Ireland…And we can of course see the attraction for local school leavers to be able to attend a home university.
“But we need to get this right from the start. If we don’t, there is potential for too many vets and not enough jobs, with downward pressure on salaries and employment conditions.”
Other topics covered in the speech included: horse welfare in relation to the lack of abattoirs to slaughter horses in Northern Ireland; bovine tuberculosis, including the TB Strategy Group and TVR programme; antimicrobial resistance and European Antibiotics Awareness Day; work to raise public awareness of toxocara; the AWF/RSPCA puppy contract; vet wellbeing; future of the veterinary profession.